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Sydney Writers Festival
Mothers and Daughters
Friday 1st June 2007, 1.00pm

l to r: Susanne Gervay, Carol Lefevre,
Jane Messer, Emily Ballou

Writing The Essential Female Tragedy.

My novel Nights In The Asylum has multiple narrative strands, but for this panel I'll stick closely to mothers and daughters.

Fiction is a place where we can engage with the things that worry or terrify us as writers, we work them out on the page, and as readers we confront situations we can hardly bear to contemplate in life. Adrienne Rich, in her book Of Woman Born, writes: 'The loss of the daughter to the mother - the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy.'

Nights In The Asylum is constructed around this tragedy. I am not giving away any secrets if I say that the daughter, Alice, has died. When we first meet Alice she appears to be in crisis, although we don't know why. In her first year at university, and with little money, she makes an abrupt move away from home and into a share flat. Gradually we learn that she has been a witness to her father's serial infidelities. Alice is bewildered and angered by the way her mother has allowed herself and her marriage, and by extension Alice, to be degraded.

Alice displays signs of anorexia. She wants control, and exercises it through what she will and will not allow into her body; it is as if she is striving to escape her mother's influence, striving for something more perfect than her messy marriage, ruthlessly carving out of herself any possibility of duplicating a beautiful but flawed mother.

While writing Nights I found myself thinking a great deal about the body -- the way we're limited and isolated by it, and the ways in which we reach out beyond its limitations to others, how successful or unsuccessful this reaching is in terms of intimacy. The book contains secrets that are known to the reader but not shared between the characters, so the reader has a peephole into lives in a way that, in the real world, is only perhaps imitated by the Internet. As it happens, Nights in the Asylum would have been a good title for a book about Internet lives; Alice, is exactly the sort of girl who might reach out for support, not to her mother, but to strangers on the net.

I hope this is not wandering too far from the point, but I want to share a few details of where the writing of this book took me. To research Alice I spent many hours visiting eating disorder websites and forums, until in the end it seemed as if the whole world was eating disordered in one form or another. I saw vulnerable young women reveal private and appalling details of their lives to strangers, and became obsessed all over again with questions of isolation and intimacy, with the way these daughters were slipping out though Internet portals to seek support from strangers while their mothers slept unknowing in the room next door.

As with literature, the Internet is a place where people connect in a very intimate way. Guests don't enter through the front door, they don't sit across a table as a mother or a father or a friend might. Text is a subtle contact; it seems to enter through our own heads, so that we almost feel as if we already know these beings that are tapping out their deepest secrets. If writers write about the things that terrify or worry them, then I am worried about girls like Alice. I worry about the way MSN Messenger and its ilk seems to have replaced what the feminist writer Naomi Ruth Lowinsky has called the Motherline — that accumulation of female experience and wisdom that links generations of women.

I am a fortunate daughter whose 82-year-old mother is still of a mind to plant citrus trees, who has pictures she plans to paint. As a child I cried myself to sleep imagining her loss. As an adult, I am nervous of my ability to come to terms with a world from which she is absent. I am always awed by the way other women, her included, cope with this loss. When I think of it, everything around me darkens and I experience the same surge of panic I felt as a child in a crowded street as I looked around and could not identify her unique mother shape. I have always known that her loss would create a space inside me that could never be filled. In the novel, the character of Miri is a woman caught in the middle — painfully centred between the lost mother and the lost daughter, between the twin terrors of the writer.

In A Room Of One's Own, Virginia Woolfe wrote; 'We think backwards through our mothers, if we are women.' I know that I certainly do. Mothers are the custodians of our history before our own memories kick in. In their absence there may no longer be anyone who remembers us as small children, no one on whose body the precise memory of our own smaller bodies is indelibly imprinted.

In an interview, the Canadian writer Anne Michaels has, perhaps inadvertently, suggested another way of looking at that Motherline connection. She says:

'The present is just the focus of a huge amount of time. You can press down anywhere and reach profound depths of time, from any present moment'.

In Nights In The Asylum, Miri returns to a house that has been lived in by earlier generations of women. Their presence is palpable in wardrobes stuffed with dusty clothing, in photograph albums and plaster statues of the saints. Miri moves into her mother's old bedroom. She stops wearing her own clothes and dresses from the drawers and wardrobes, feeling in the worn garments a fragile but comforting connection with her mother and grandmother.

Reading from Nights:

(This passage from the book celebrates the special qualities of Miri's mother, and perhaps provides a clue to the way that, present or absent, our mothers will always be with us. In this scene, Miri is looking at photographs taken by her mother.)

A study of teacups on the kitchen table, random patterns of tea leaves clinging to their insides as if awaiting the entrance of a fortune-teller. To the right of the table, a blurred figure crossed to the sink.

Miri felt herself falling backwards into a day when her mother was still alive, still vivid and busy, passionate about photography. She passed a fingertip across the smoke-like figure, willing this ghost to reveal itself. The photograph looked like one of her mother's experiments with time exposure. Candela had been obsessed with creating images in that way, setting the camera on a tripod and keeping the shutter open in different rooms of the house to give a long exposure of the film to light. Sometimes she herself moved into the frame, dancing or simply walking across the room; sometimes it was Miri who accidentally appeared as a disturbance on the surface of the finished print.

Six of Candela's time exposures, enlarged and framed, still hung above the sideboard in the dining room, studies of cherries, photographed in colour and so cunningly composed that the chipped white bowl, the background of buff linen, lured every drop of colour to the burnished surface of the fruit.

The first time Jack saw her mother's cherry pictures he had studied them for a long time. "Just makes you ache to eat cherries," he'd said finally.

As a child, Miri had not understood that her mother had a gift, although she knew Candela was different. While other mothers got drunk in the pub or prepared backyard barbecues, her own had photographed the stars. Some weekends she would put their pillows and blankets in the car and drive out of town just before sunset. On the hot flat plains to the north she would pull off the road, set up her tripod and aim her camera lens at the sky. While they slept, the open eye of the camera recorded the expanding universe in scribbles of light. It was a kind of magic that Candela performed with her camera.

On one of those long hot nights stretched on the car seats, her mother explained how the distance between stars was calculated; she knew the sum for working out the vast unimaginable distance light travelled in a single year.

"And when we see the sun, what we really see is how the sun was eight minutes ago," she said. "What we see can never be identical to the sun. If the sun exploded, if it ceased to exist, we would still see it as it was. Because light carries the image."

Miri thought about this sum in relation to her mother, to Jack and Alice. Nothing was ever lost, her mother had insisted. The information, flying away at speed, travelled to infinity as part of the memory of light. Everything they had ever done, every moment of their lives, was trapped in light. (Reading ends)

To each of us as infants, our mother's face is the sun. And women fall in love with their babies. I've seen it happen. I've fallen, myself. I've heard this fall is precipitated by the release of a delicate pheromone, a substance secreted in the heads of newborns that compels mothers to love their offspring in spite of the pain and suffering and danger of childbirth. Since human young are dependent for so long, the affair is necessarily a passionate one.

I'd like to finish now with a few paragraphs from the novel I'm currently writing, which is very much concerned with mothers and daughters. It describes the moment when a woman falls in love with a baby - in this case it's a boy that does not belong to her, but it could just as easily be a girl, her daughter, your daughter, or mine. It casts strong hints in the direction of fairytales, at the centre of which mothers and daughters have for centuries played out various dark and magical relationships.


Aurora was the first to hold him, first to touch the tiny fingers, and the feet so small she could have warmed them in her mouth. He did not belong to her, but his mother, Rose, had fainted, and when the midwife handed the newborn to Aurora she cupped his marble head in her palm, held spellbound by the eggshell scalp, the perfect curve of his eyelids. It was shattering how beautiful he was, how complete. Afterwards she would recognise this as the moment when she opened her heart to loss.

His eyes were squeezed against the light, but as she leaned over him they flicked open and their blueness pierced her, the prick of the spindle, she thought, and this starburst of colour was an opening into which she fell headlong a trapdoor activated a by a hidden spring, the entrance to a winding stair that lead her up, up, up into the highest turret.

His head had a subtle yet insistent scent, and as she walked from the hospital through the damp grey streets towards St Agnes Crescent she smelled it on her velvet jacket, on the palms of her hands. It was still there when she stood shivering in the kitchen and poured herself a whiskey, there when she woke on the sofa, blinded by dusty sunlight and with the drink still sour on her tongue. Aurora was the first to hold him and she had felt the magic door fly open. It was wide open now, and that was all there was to it.

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Other musings on the Writing Life ...

"Nights in the Asylum is subtle, rich, wise and seductive.'s a gorgeous act of defiance to those who say literary fiction is in trouble."

Nicholas Jose

"Nights in the Asylum is an interesting and accomplished book, far from didactic in its portrayal of mistreated refugees, or domestic violence, Aziz's and Zett's stories create a powerful undertow beneath and alongside Miri's grief."

Dorothy Johnston
Canberra Times

"The stories spin out in broken form, like a handful of photographs splayed on a between these narratives are snapshots of other people's lives, tiny bright moments of existence that illuminate the.major tales and cast shadows in the corners of the stories we are following."

Kay Sexton

" ...this is an important Australian novel which addresses the contemporary dilemma of the asylum seeker. The novel comes at a time when the refugee issue is transforming from one of general apathy towards 'queue-jumpers' around the time of the SIEVX (click here to vist the SIEVX website) to a burgeoning collective empathy (perhaps guilt) towards refugees genuinely seeking asylum in this country."

Rob Walker

"Lefevre writes beautiful, smooth sentences that at times reminded me of (Michael) Ondaatje's. She lays out her narrative, too, with similar tranquillity and poise."

Delia Falconer
Australian Literary Review